Health | Australia

24 September 2021

New figures show the incidence of death by overdose in Australia remain high, and policymakers need to do something about it, Vernon White writes.

A recent report has revealed that in the background of Australia’s COVID-19 chaos, the country recorded more 2,200 drug overdose deaths in 2020, of which more than 1,600 have been confirmed as unintentional. With headlines full of pandemic news, this has sparked little outrage.

The report notes that this is the sixth year in a row where drug overdose deaths in Australia have exceeded 2,000 people, and not unlike other countries, opioids are affecting the death toll.

Of course, the problem at large is not new to Australia, as the use of illegal drugs has been a prevalent problem in the country for decades. Over the past 25 years, overdose rates have been at a level that is unsurpassed than those in almost every other comparable nation.

While the country faces a growing opioid problem, the core of the drug problem in Australia is the use of methamphetamine in every corner of the nation – an issue that shows no sign of waning.

More on this: Podcast: Illicit drug policy – more harm than good?

The recent report identifies that the overdose death rate as 5.9 per 100,000 Australians. Even more disturbing is that the death rate among Indigenous Australians is four times higher than that of non-Indigenous Australians, sitting at 20 deaths per 100,000.

This is a crisis that demands action. A policy response, especially in Indigenous communities, must be swift and extensive to reduce the horrific toll overdoses are having.

The report also shows that more than half of unintentional deaths from overdose come from opioid overdoses. This has been a growing problem worldwide, with countries like Canada facing their worst overdose death rates in history.

Australia is not yet seeing the levels of overdose deaths that have plagued the United States, but this growing death toll is still a wake-up call to policymakers that Australia is on the same track.

Originally, the country faced a legal opioid use problem, supported by a shift that saw many in the medical community replace narcotics with opioids only to find that opioid addiction was often the result.

More on this: Make drugs a health issue

But now, many of these addicts moved from medical access to opioids to illegal access. The potential of overdose death rises significantly when the use of opioids comes from illegal markets, due in large part to lax manufacturing standards.

It is not uncommon, for instance, for drug dealers to use illegal fentanyl to make a counterfeit mixture that is then processed through a pill press to produce tablets like oxycodone. This is a problem in Australia too. In fact, the Australian Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration released a notice on their website as a response to a rise in the use of counterfeit opioids, in attempt to counter the recent phenomena.

The opportunity for Australia to act upon this problem is swiftly passing, and policymakers must act urgently, or the country will remain firmly in the grips of its mounting overdose problem.

However, all is not lost yet. If leaders engage with communities now to reduce harm, with measures like pill testing facilities, safe supplies of alternative drug therapy, and treatment options, they can still reverse this worrying trend.

This must involve engagement with Indigenous communities, who are especially at risk, and focus on advancements in education and employment, as well as health initiatives.

Ultimately, these numbers should be a wake-up call to leaders. While the pandemic is understandably front-of-mind for most of the country, the issues identified by this new report recently should be clearly on the radar of health officials and politicians, who must act now to prevent this loss of life from drug overdose.

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One Response

  1. Layne White says:

    It’s such a problem here in Canada. Politicians have to open more treatment facilities for addictions and mental health to try and curb this growing problem. If they don’t the death toll will only continue to grow.

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